Hundreds of years before Bonnie Parker terrified the highways robbing and murdering all in her path, Katherine Ferrers was known as The Wicked Lady for her tirade on the highways of 16th century England.
Young Katherine Ferrers was born into aristocracy in 1634, England. She was an heiress to a great fortune and lived a very plushy life, as it were in that century. That was not to last, however. By the time she was 14, she’d lost almost everything and was married off in an attempt to save what was left.
Katherine’s parents, Knighton and Katherine Ferrers, were held in high regard by Edward VI and Henry VII allowing them to have multiple homes and properties across the countryside. Katherines father, grandfather, and brother died in succession and she was left alone in 1640 with her mother who remarried a short time later.
Sir Simon Fanshawe became Katherine’s stepfather. He was a Royalist and Committed to King Charles I so when civil war erupted in 1642, he moved his new family to Oxford to be with the King. The winter she turned eight her mother died. Katherine was left in the care of her stepfather as an eight-year-old heiress. He was eventually taken prisoner in 1644 for two years at the Battle of Marston Moor. His brother and sister-in-law, Richard and Ann Fanshawe, made Katherine a ward of the court. Eventually, Simon’s sister Alice took Kristine in.
In 1643, Parliament began seizing property and assets of known Royalists. As soon as Katherine turned 14, the Fanshawe family decided Kathrine would marry their nephew, 16-year-old Thomas. They married in 1648 and Thomas took control of what was left of her estate and sold most of it. He became involved in the uprising arranged by George Booth and was imprisoned for a year.
Legend has it that during Thomas’s long absences in prison and at war, and his habit of selling off more of her estates every year, Katherine decided to take to the highways to replace some of her lost fortune. Highwayman had the peculiar reputation as being cordial, clever, and pleasant in their endeavors. Largely because they were misplaced Royalists mourning their income properties seized by Parliament. The myth has it that Katherine dressed as a man and crept out at night to live a highwayman’s life.
Part of the legend was that she had a partner in crime by the name of Ralph Chaplin who was a farmer on neighboring property. Some townsfolk blamed a variety of other criminal happenings, such as arsons, murders, and slaughtering livestock on the pair throughout the years.
She died in 1660 at the age of 26. Her death was fairly mysterious as no real records were made. Some say she died of a gunshot would. Others believe she died while giving birth to a premature, illegitimate baby. No record of Ralph Chaplin having ever existed has been found. Legend says he was captured and hung the day after her death.
The moniker of The Wicked Lady did not come about until long after her death and pertains more to mischievous deeds blamed on her ghost than anything she did in life. Almost none of the legend can be proven and should be taken lightly. The shroud of mystery will never clear.
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